Sea of reeds: An actors journey to find his faith

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

“Of course my dad loved Christmas,” Josh Kornbluth is saying as he tells a childhood story about learning that Santa Claus wasn’t real. “You’re celebrating the birthday of a communist Jew.”

It’s a little before noon on June 11, and Kornbluth is doing a little “downloading.”

In his world, that doesn’t necessarily involve computers — it means riffing. Seated across from him is his longtime friend and director, David Dower. Kornbluth, in a bright red Hawaiian shirt and his signature circular wire-frame glasses, is telling Dower about his latest thoughts for the show they’re working on, titled “Sea of Reeds.”

photo/cathleen maclearie

In about 15 minutes, the musicians will be showing up for rehearsal in the Berkeley practice space. But for now, half-formed jokes and stream-of-consciousness stories pour out of the comedian while Dower writes them down, organizes them and reads them back. He keeps Kornbluth’s brainstorming on track.

One note: As they’re doing this, the play’s opening is a mere three weeks away — July 5 at the Shotgun Players’ intimate Ashby Stage in Berkeley. Twenty-six performances are scheduled through Aug. 4, including three in preview on July 2, 3 and 4.

The writing wasn’t quite done as of last week, but in this case Kornbluth’s creative process matches up nicely with his subject matter. It’s a story about constant evolution, in more ways than one.

In July 2011, at 52, Kornbluth — a man who six months earlier had never attended shul, didn’t believe in God and felt no connection to religious Judaism — had a bar mitzvah. In Israel. On top of a water tower at a kibbutz in the Negev. Not only that, but over the same time period in which he was studying Torah and learning about Judaism for the first time, the Berkeley resident was re-learning to play the oboe, an instrument he hadn’t picked up for more than 30 years. 

And what, exactly, do these things have in common?

“There are two things that tend to annoy the people around me when I practice them,” the prolific monologist says in one part of the show. “The oboe and Judaism.”

The title of the show (which, significantly, is not a monologue) is a play on both: A double reed is necessary for playing the oboe; a recurring line of thought in the piece has Kornbluth insisting he’s not a “real” oboist, as oboists make their own reeds. And then there’s the Reed Sea, or Sea of Reeds — what some scholars say was likely the true name of what we’ve come to call the Red Sea.

Throw in the Exodus story, Marxism jokes, Bach, Sephardic music and revolution-inspired folk songs played by a five-piece band, and you’ve got a production that blends Kornbluth’s usual neurotic, self-deprecating wit with a poignant narrative about a highly personal journey: the story of what happened when one man decided, almost accidentally, to question his own long-held beliefs.

Raised in New York City by secular Jews who also were deeply committed Marxists — “if there was any religion, it was Communism” — Kornbluth says he nevertheless always “felt Jewish.”

“I mean, I look Jewish, I act Jewish, I never had any doubt that I was Jewish,” Kornbluth says during an interview at Pollo’s, a favorite Berkeley diner. “But there was really no component of religious Judaism in my upbringing, to the point where [my parents] were kind of against it. We went to services in churches sometimes, which my dad called the best show in town for a buck. But I never set foot inside a synagogue until my cousins had bar mitzvahs, and that was about it.”

After being commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum to write and perform a monologue for the 2009 exhibit “Warhol’s Jews,” Kornbluth set out to learn about Judaism out of necessity.

“I literally went, ‘Oh, OK, I should learn some stuff about Jews,’ ” says the performer, who moved to the Bay Area in 1987. “I really didn’t know anything.”

Dan Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the CJM, suggested Kornbluth talk to Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom for a kind of crash course in Judaism.

And then a funny thing happened.

Josh Kornbluth (left) and Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Kornbluth’s bar mitzvah in Israel. photo/sara l. sato

“I went to his office a few times to talk, and really just liked him. I found him incredibly exciting to talk to,” Kornbluth says. “And I realized part of what was so exciting to me in the way he talked about Judaism was that it reminded me of some of the Marxist stuff I grew up with. The way you argue about theory … it made me see [Judaism] as a practice  or a discipline that would enable to me to pursue justice in the world.”

Another parallel he saw: “It involves action, much like in Communism, where my father always talked about the idea that you have to be an activist. The way Menachem talked about Judaism was that what you think or believe isn’t sufficient. That doesn’t define you. What defines you is how you act.” (Kornbluth rejected his parents’ hard-line political views as an adult, but allows that they had an undeniable impact on his outlook.)

Around that time, one of Kornbluth’s brothers fell ill, as did the man their mother had married after their father passed away. “There were a couple different things in my life where it would have been helpful to have some sort of religion, if there was one available,” he says.

He hadn’t felt one was “available,” however, because he didn’t believe in God.

“That had always been a sticking point for me in terms of [why I didn’t attend synagogue],” Kornbluth says. “I would have felt like a phony saying prayers about God being great and having done all these things.”

So he asked Creditor what his definition of God was. The rabbi’s response? “The collective potential of human imagination.”

Kornbluth recalled that many years earlier, when he was a kid, he had asked his father if there was such thing as God. His father’s reply: “If there is a God, God would be all the people on Earth working together.”

Kornbluth thought over both answers. He started attending synagogue services every now and then.

After his show “Andy Warhol: Good For the Jews?” ended a short run at the CJM in 2009, Kornbluth toured the U.S. with the monologue. For all practical purposes, he had no need to keep studying Judaism.

But he wanted to keep talking to the rabbi about all these exciting ideas. And that’s how Kornbluth wound up at a coffee shop with Creditor, blurting out the idea of wanting the rabbi to help him study for a bar mitzvah.

At the time, Kornbluth was eating quiche with bacon in it.

The rabbi agreed. And then he upped the ante: The bar mitzvah should take place in Israel, on a trip that Creditor would be leading that summer. After talking about how Kornbluth needed deadlines, the rabbi also suggested they make Kornbluth’s studying a public experience.

The result was “My Big Fat Jewish Learning,” a seven-session class, open to the public, that involved text study, book discussions and dialogues with both Kornbluth and Creditor.

The rabbi’s version of these facts? He says Kornbluth doesn’t give himself enough credit.

Kornbluth and actress Amy Resnick rehearse for “Sea of Reeds.” photographer/adam tolbert

“His enthusiasm was really exciting for me,” Creditor says. “He’s a tremendous thinker, and he didn’t just absorb stuff that he was exposed to — he immediately began creating meaningful ways of sharing it with others. He took that first conversation in which I shared my theology with him and amplified it far beyond the venues where I would have brought it … in a way that I think could be really inspiring, could hopefully open the door for other people who are just starting to have questions about Judaism.”

One big learning moment revolved around the Torah portion that Kornbluth had to study for his bar mitzvah. As it turned out, it contained messages he disagreed with entirely. It was  a section about how “Jews shouldn’t sleep with non-Jews, basically,” he says.

Kornbluth’s wife, Sara, is not Jewish; the couple’s 15-year-old son, Guthrie, is half Jewish simply because “he’s half-me,” says Kornbluth.

They’ve both been supportive of his newfound interest in Judaism, he says. And yet he became aware early on in his learning process that, “OK, this is a separate thing from my family, and yet my family is the center of my life. What does that mean, exactly?

“I really have no interest in trying to make them convert or anything. It’s just not how we roll,” Kornbluth continues. “So to have to speak on this Torah section that has this fundamentalism and zealotry, all these things I don’t accept as part of my Judaism, especially in front of my son … it was basically, I’m not going to do that.”

When he asked Creditor for advice, however, the rabbi told him he didn’t have to agree with it. “He said ‘You just have to engage with it,’ ” Kornbluth recalls. “Nowhere does it say you have to agree with it at all.”

These conversations and others are portrayed throughout “Sea of Reeds” with the help of Amy Resnick, an actor and longtime friend of Kornbluth’s. Her presence onstage, as well as those of the musicians, is part of what makes this performance another kind of first for Kornbluth: It’s not a monologue. This development came at the suggestion of Shotgun Players’ artistic director Patrick Dooley, and Kornbluth says it’s been both exhilarating and terrifying.

“I’ve been a monologist my whole life, which I think to a certain degree is about needing control. With other people [onstage], I do worry about, what does it mean? Am I losing something?” he says, noting that he’s never been in a play.

“But then the joke about being a monologist, of course, is that the cast parties are kind of a drag.”

And then there’s the oboe. When Kornbluth was 8 or 9, he was on his way home from violin lessons when he was mugged; older boys took the violin and ran away. Accepting that he hadn’t been very good at it anyway, but wanting to play another orchestral instrument, he asked his mother to name the most difficult, obscure instrument she could think of. (This is, at least, how Kornbluth remembers it now.) That’s how he picked up the oboe.

From age 10 or 11 through college, he played regularly, including in a New York City youth orchestra; he says it helped him get into Princeton University. But he quit because he felt he wasn’t as good as he should be. “I felt I was supposed to be great, and I wasn’t.”

Coming back to it in his 50s, he says, was a sense of wanting to complete something. It was one more thing — alongside college, he says — that he’d never seen through to completion. He sees a certain poetry in the way professional oboists can spend days making their own reeds, only to have the delicate things last for two or three days at a time. It’s worth it; the struggle is part of the process.

Kornbluth plays the oboe throughout “Sea of Reeds,” joining a pianist, violinist, upright bass player and drummer on both traditional songs and original pieces by local composer and sound designer Marco D’Ambrosio. Music being an integral part of a show — and Kornbluth being an integral part of the music — is yet another step out of his comfort zone, he says.

In one scene, Kornbluth is explaining to Creditor’s character (played by Resnick) that his family was Jewish, “but not really Jewish.” They had seders, he says, “but they were communist seders, all about the revolution.” After the band plays a few songs his family used to sing at said communist seders — with lines about the Israelites leaving Egypt — Kornbluth realizes there’s perhaps less of a gap between the themes of the Exodus story and those in his parents’ vision of an egalitarian, utopian society.

The scene is a reflection, says Kornbluth, of the realization that he may have grown up more Jewishly than he thought.

Since his bar mitzvah, he’s been figuring out which parts of Judaism make sense for him, which fit into his life. He has become fairly connected to the Netivot Shalom community, and he goes to shul sometimes. He also fasts on Yom Kippur —“even coffee,” he says. He has no plans to give up bacon.

His own personal journey aside, he says he’s heard from those involved in the show who aren’t Jewish that his story strikes a nerve — that there’s something universal about his path to self-discovery — which is part of why he believes this show will appeal to Jews and non-Jews alike.

“At the center of ‘Sea of Reeds’ is the actual description of what happened to the Israelites when they were crossing [the Red Sea], how they were on dry land, which is impossible. It’s a paradox,” he says. “And one of the things that’s really appealing to me is this idea that much of what drives our lives is paradoxical, and the inability to accept that leads to a lot of problems: fundamentalism and orthodoxies where people say ‘Oh, you have to be on this side or that side, and everyone on the other side is going to hell, or doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or doesn’t deserve land.’

“And part of this story for me is realizing that line doesn’t divide where I thought it did, like between atheists and religious people. I come from this tribe, but I’m also a human being,” he continues. “I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a Jew, I’m other things … so it doesn’t take me away from my family members who aren’t Jewish that I’m studying Judaism. The emotion I feel is that it’s helping me to become more fully myself, and more complete when I’m with the people I love.

“It doesn’t have to be that way for anyone else,” he concludes. “It turns out it just happens to be that way for me.”

“Sea of Reeds” opens July 5 and runs through Aug. 4 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $23-$35. In preview July 2-4, $8-$20. www.shotgunplayers.org or (510) 841-6500

on the cover

photo/cathleen maclearie

Josh Kornbluth

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.